A narrative problematised

March 30,2018

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The manner in which the Senate elections were conducted demonstrates once again that Pakistani democracy remains subject to constant manipulation. The overall politically tenuous and volatile context in the country in which the Senate polls were held could hardly generate any positive results for the already fragile state of our democracy which continues to deteriorate. If we are to avoid a replay of this, and to diffuse political tensions and arrest further deterioration of democracy, it is imperative to address the fundamental and structural causes that sustain the high combustibility of the country’s political context.

The dominant narrative is that the current political turmoil is the result of a clash of institutions and if the political situation is to be improved, the government and the ruling party should avoid confrontation with institutions of the state. Raza Rabbani appeared to endorse this in his last speech as chairman Senate – though he did not single out the ruling party or the government for this confrontation. He proposed a dialogue between institutions to reduce political tensions. I find the clash of institutions narrative and Rabbani’s proposed idea derived from this narrative problematic in at least three ways.

First, evidently our constitution – or for that matter the constitution of any representative democracy in the world – does not envisage dialogues between institutions. Dialogue entails give and take, bargaining and hence politics. In representative democracies the judiciary, while independent, has to act according to the letter and spirit of the constitution, and the military is supposed to follow the directions of civilian governments. Both these institutions are essentially non-political. The roles of non-representative institutions have been clearly laid down in the constitution and they are non-negotiable if any democracy has to remain representative. In the case of Rabbani’s proposal, can one ask what the price for parliamentarians would be if such a dialogue were to take place? If there is no such exchange under consideration, why is it thought that such a dialogue would be held in the first place, with the die cast against politicians?

Second, the framing of the current political turmoil as a clash of institutions implies that what is actually taking place is essentially not an encroachment upon the civilian domain but a confrontation in which, according to the opponents of Nawaz Sharif, the government is bent on weakening state institutions, and the increasing assertiveness of these institutions is nothing but a defensive measure in the interest of the state. Seeing things through the lens of the clash of institutions narrative also means that even those political forces that do not hold Sharif solely responsible for the current crisis end up placing the civilian government and other institutions on the same moral and constitutional ground.

Notwithstanding Sharif and his family’s questionable financial probity and the PML-N government’s lacklustre performance, the fact is that the civilian government is a legitimate government under the constitution. And if it is being pushed against the wall and its authority – defined by the constitution – is being relentlessly trespassed then, from moral and constitutional standpoints, it cannot be held equally responsible for nudging the country to the path of political instability.

The clash of institutions narrative operates to conceal political encroachment and its attendant politics. The abstraction of ‘institution’ provides an aura of respectability, neutrality, professionalism and efficiency and hides real people with real motives, egos, and ambitions. The narrative finds its most enthusiastic supporters among the educated middle classes who, apart from their traditional propensity to be enamoured of the technocratic mode of governance, are now also convinced, thanks largely to the discourse of the PTI, that the country’s well-being depends on the strengthening of institutions (which should be true if institutions work within their constitutional limit). Thus, even mild attempts by the civilian government to resist intrusion are readily taken as threats to the integrity of institutions and the state (another powerful abstraction) from selfish, corrupt and power-hungry politicians.

Lastly, the issue with the narrative is that it has moved the locus of politics to ‘institutions’. The framing of politics in terms of this narrative has reduced the essence of politics to intra-elite disputes. At a time when we are gradually recovering from the tragic consequences of framing politics in religious and sectarian terms, and there is an opportunity to frame politics around people-centric and progressive issues, energies are being expended on intra-elite struggles with the sites of political contestations having shifted to courts and drawing rooms. This had led to the judicialisation, bureaucratisation, and elitisation of politics. The culture of backdoor bargaining and drawing-room politics can only flourish in such circumstances. In the final analysis, any dialogue based on the assumption that there exists a clash of institutions is tantamount to legitimising and normalising a situation that a representative democracy should not have to face.

The solution to the worsening political instability in the country lies in addressing the structures and narratives that undergird the growing undermining of civilian authority. We the people – the real guardians of Pakistani democracy – should not allow our scepticism of the performance of civilian governments to be exploited to deprive us of our stakes in the system and possible avenues of actions for a better Pakistan, something that only representative democracy can guarantee. Considering our history, our commitment to the continuity of imperfect democracy must be based upon an understanding that the path to a just democracy goes through imperfect democracy and not through governments perceived as constantly under siege.

The writer studied international politics at SOAS, University of London.


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